Ohio secretary of state Jennifer Brunner has her eyes on George Voinovich's soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat and is in the middle of a primary campaign against lieutenant governor Lee Fisher. Fisher has loads of campaign money, but Brunner is casting herself as a progressive candidate who isn't afraid to speak out on issues that make conservatives freak (gay marriage) and other politicians hide from (a death-penalty moratorium in Ohio). Brunner visited with Scene during a recent visit to Cleveland. — Damian Guevara
What do you think is the big difference between you and Lee Fisher?
What seems to be happening in the race is that I'll make a very clear statement on a position that may be controversial, and then he'll usually catch up and speak in a more bland way about that issue. For instance, the Stupak-Pitts amendment [restricting access to abortions] that was adopted in order to get the health-bill reform passed out of the House of Representatives: I came out very strongly on it, and later [Fisher] finally made a statement about it. On gay marriage, he started out saying he could be convinced, and once I came out strongly for it, he was for it. On the Employee Free Choice Act, I came out strongly for it, and finally, at a state-party dinner, he said in one simple sentence that he supports it.
You drive around Cleveland, and parts of it are a wasteland. Who's to blame for the foreclosures, and how does the region recover?
I served as a common pleas judge [in Franklin County, 2001-05] and as a result, I saw a huge uptick in foreclosures, even as I was leaving the bench to run for secretary of state. When you really delve into the foreclosure crisis, what you discover is that there has been this trading of mortgages. Mortgages can be pieced together, securitized, sold as one, sold in parts — it's like unregulated securities. There's an organization called MERS, Mortgage Electronic Registration System, which literally holds the debt interest in people's mortgages, and the trading and the transferring of that interest goes on without having to record it in the county recorder's office. So many times on the foreclosure, [law firms] file a foreclosure with the wrong owner of the mortgage. This kind of blatant disregard for the state and local laws of recording and showing who actually owns the property, as well as the plight of people who are caught in the situation — it's all about money. This is such an ingrained pattern over the last few years that it's going to take some major systemic changes to be felt by individual consumers. If the original lender had to keep a little skin in the game, even 10 percent, I think you'd have a completely different story here.
With so many people out of jobs and below the poverty line in Cleveland, where are we failing in Ohio, in terms of public education?
Clearly with funding, and it's been that way for years. The young man whose name was on the original lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of school funding in Ohio [Nathan DeRolph of Perry County], he went completely through high school [with no change]. We had a supreme court that had [the case] four times, and even though it had the power to hold the legislature in contempt, it never did. But to completely fix the funding formula might entail adding more state dollars to it, which is really tough in the economic times we have now.
What's the next generation of industry that can revive the Ohio economy, and what kind of skills will Ohioans need to take advantage of that?
Ohio stands to gain greatly from bringing the public and private sector together to develop clean-energy jobs. It could mean building a new grid — you have steel plants that could contribute to that. As far as wind power, there aren't a lot of new sites able to be developed, but we know where on the best locations for wind are going to be. Part of the problem is connecting [a wind-energy system] to the main grid. We could go further with a smart grid, where consumers can actually see when they're wasting electricity and resources, because the cleanest energy is the energy that is not used. We have so many pieces and parts to put together a coherent plan and operation for clean- energy jobs and to actually make money for Ohio, but it's going to take some determined and consistent leadership to get that from start to finish.
How would a clean-energy plan work?
If we focused on small- to medium-size cities — cities of 50,000 to 500,000, which would include Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Parma, Lakewood, Euclid, Mentor, Lorain, Elyria — those size cities are not that far removed from open land. There are a lot of places in those cities where there is vacant land that can be used and bought at a much lesser cost than in larger metropolitan areas. You could create a field of solar panels — it takes eight acres of land for one megawatt of electricity, which would provide enough electricity for 10,000 homes. The grids we have for electricity are antiquated. They're meant to carry large loads on long distances. When you carry them those long distances, there's a 10 percent loss of electricity. If we could start localizing our energy production, starting first with the grids, there are so many jobs there in manufacturing, in training. When you're talking about retooling factories, you bring in the building trades to do that.
What would the government's role be in all this?
It takes a government with a political will to bring people together and keep on it. It's one of those things you talk about when improving the lives of people in poverty or bringing more jobs — you just don't throw money at it. It takes people who roll up their sleeves and stay on it. The Republican viewpoint — at least for those running for Senate — is, "Well, we have to be more favorable to business and the jobs will be there." Yes, we do have to be more favorable to business, but we have to stay engaged.
Do you also see potential for agriculture in Northeast Ohio?
There seem to be more people in urban areas paying attention to where their food comes from. Why couldn't there be partnerships where you're localizing some of your food production and you're creating a partnership with city schools, and you have an organization or business that supplies local produce directly to the schools? If we start looking for the things we have in common, so much can be done more quickly than we think and for a lot less money.
During the Romell Broom execution fiasco (covered in
Scene, "Dead Man Talking," September 30), you clearly were against the death penalty on [news website] Huffington Post. Why do you think Ohioans, and Americans in general, are tolerant of the death penalty?
I don't know why they're tolerant of it, having personally seen or talked to people who have been incarcerated for 26 years and who were found innocent later, and they were on death row for part of that time. If we make an erroneous execution, we can't undo it. I understand that for someone has been the victim of a heinous crime, maybe there is some satisfaction. I myself don't know if that gives them the closure or the satisfaction they need. They'll never get the person back.